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Originally published Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Barack in the box

The average voter should be insulted or confused by conservative icon Shelby Steele's latest book, "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About...

The average voter should be insulted or confused by conservative icon Shelby Steele's latest book, "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win."

For starters, the title appears horribly out of date. Sen. Barack Obama is sailing on the winds of victory, having won Iowa, done well in New Hampshire and trounced his competitors across gender and socioeconomic lines in South Carolina.

Time will prove whether Steele's prediction of an eventual Obama loss is accurate, but the book's premise is an ugly one. According to Steele, the Obamamania storming the nation is a result of blacks grasping for a sign of racial progress and whites looking for redemption from their racist past. I categorically reject this theory.

Americans will vote for Obama or another candidate for reasons that hopefully go beyond race. We'll pull the lever to ward off a military draft or stop the drain of billions out of the U.S. treasury to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan. We'll vote for the person with the best plan for cleaner air and staunching the flood of jobs shifting overseas.

Steele is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a National Humanities Medal recipient (from President Bush) for his ruminations on race. Like Obama, he is the product of a white mother and a black father. It would thus be easy to dismiss his arguments as high-school sparring by the good-looking guys running for student government.

Steele and Obama are very much alike. Both are gifted thinkers, orators and shrewd salesmen. They both radiate a tantalizing comfort in their skin, a relaxed aura that goes beyond the tailored suits and silk ties. Both struggled to accept their biracial heritage.

I agree with Steele on several smaller fronts. For the record, it was a weird feeling similar to the sensation I get on the rare occasions I agree with Al Sharpton. I agree that Obama will be challenged by various constituencies in ways that the other, white, candidates will not. I agree that for some voters, he will never be black enough; and for others, he will always be unworthy because he is black.

Consider that Obama may have won South Carolina, but it wasn't with the help of white men, who voted overwhelmingly for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Consider that, as the presidential race heads West, the debate in California and other states with large numbers of Hispanic voters centers on a supposedly black-brown divide that will deprive Obama of Latino votes. From news talk shows to the blogosphere, the question is asked whether Latinos will vote for a black man.

Refreshing as it is to take a break from the tired black-white paradigm and consider the impact of Latino, Asian and Native American voters, this also plays to Steele's smaller points about America's continued obsession with race.

Rather than transcending race, Obama has given fresh reason to obsess about it further. This is why former President Bill Clinton felt comfortable enough to dismiss Obama's South Carolina win by comparing it to Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential bid, in which the latter won 13 primaries and caucuses. Translation: Obama's win was a black thing; no need to take it seriously.

Time to admit we're all complex creatures with unpredictable and contradictory ideologies. Steele admits to a pride in Obama that I share. But I also take pride in Sen. Hillary Clinton's historic run. And it is up for grabs whom I — or you, dear reader — will vote for.

So I'll stop with the racial speculations if the rest of us will. It is way past time to stop trying to box in Obama because all we do is show how bound we are by tired racial conventions. We are complex creatures given to contradictions and ideologies that can't be seen from the outside.

Steele is just one of many seeking to throw Obama on the couch and analyze him, much as the country has done with the Clinton marriage. But you know, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes a black man running for president is just a man seeking higher office.

Examining his skin tone for insight blinds us to the full measure of the man.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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